George Washington Truett’s (1867-1944) unusual call to the ministry came during a church conference (business meeting) at a small-town church in Whitewright, Texas. If a call to ministry received during a church conference was not unusual enough, the only one who raised an objection was the ministerial candidate. Yet, God affirmed a call to ministry that the church recognized even if Truett himself, at the time, did not.
Truett was born and raised in Hayesville, N.C., not far from Hiawassee, Georgia. After graduating from the Hayesville Academy, he taught in a small one room schoolhouse in Towns County, Georgia for three years. Then along with his cousin Fernando McConnell, founded the Hiawassee (Georgia) Academy in 1887. It was a Baptist high school, where for the next two years they taught students, most whom were either preparing to teach in elementary schools or to enter college.
One biographer, J.B. Cranfield, editor of The Baptist Standard, noted that during this time young Truett attended the Georgia Baptist Convention which met that year at the Cobb County Courthouse in Marietta. He was called on to speak on the work and needs of the academy. It was said that he “captured all hearts by his compelling eloquence.” Following the appeal, a collection was taken up to support the school. Shortly thereafter the school began receiving support from both the Georgia Baptist Mission Board and the Southern Baptist Convention Home Mission Board.
Furthermore, after hearing him speak, a wealthy Georgia Baptist layman was so impressed that he offered to pay his full tuition for four years at Mercer University.
Truett wanted to attend Mercer, but it never came to fruition. In 1889, Truett moved to Whitewright, Texas, with his parents and several other siblings. It was there, one Saturday afternoon in 1890 that young Truett arrived at the Whitewright Baptist Church for preaching which was to be followed by a church conference. He remembered being surprised that there were more people present than usual on that Saturday afternoon. After preaching and the other business was attended to, a senior deacon rose to speak. He began to speak of a solemn duty the church must do. Then, he made a motion that the church ordain George Truett to the ministry. The motion was quickly seconded.
Truett objected, telling them that he was going to be a lawyer. Their response, according to Truett’s biography by P. W. James, was to inform him, many speaking through tears, that if he did not recognize God’s call on his life, they did! Truett asked them to consider delaying the ordination for six months. The church refused, stating we “will not delay six hours, much less six months.”
Later that afternoon Truett spoke with his mother who said, “Son, these are praying people. These are Gods people, and you saw how they felt... they couldn’t delay. It was a whole church in solemn conference assembled.” After a sleepless night, young Truett surrendered to the call. The following morning, he was examined by a presbytery of ministers and ordained during the morning worship service.
It was unusual that a church ordained someone before being called by a church as pastor. Yet, the church had the wisdom and conviction to recognize and call out the called. It would be three years before Truett would pastor a local church while a student at Baylor.
Following his graduation in 1897, he received two invitations; one was to become the president of Baylor University, the second was a call to pastor First Baptist Church, Dallas, Texas. Biographer Cranfield wrote, “the decision was made on his knees.” In declining Baylor’s invitation, Truett said, “I have sought and found the shepherd’s heart.”
The call of God on George W. Truett’s life,was recognized by the Whitewright Baptist Church. It was a call that would echo across Texas, the nation, the world, and into eternity. Truett as a student fundraiser helped raise over $90,000 to eliminate Baylor University's debt, liberating it to continue preparing many others for ministry and other service.
FBC Dallas under his leadership became the leading church in the Southern Baptist Convention. During WWI he spent six months preaching in France and other allied countries where many soldiers were saved and his reputation as a man called of God increased.
In 1920, when the SBC met in Washington, D.C. Truett preached a sermon on the steps of the U.S. Capital titled, “Baptist and Religious Liberty.” He served as president of the SBC and the Baptist World Alliance. At the Baptist World Alliance held in Atlanta in 1939, on the eve of WWII, he once again preached on religious liberty. His ministry spanned fifty years until his death in 1944.
By calling out the called, the Whitewright Baptist Church had an enormous role in God’s plan. Truett's call impacted Baptist higher education, religious liberty, the Texas and Southern Baptist Conventions, and the Baptist World Alliance. Truett became one of the foremost Baptist preachers and statesmen of the 20th century.
As Georgia Baptists focus in the coming year on “Calling Out the Called,” churches should remember that ordination is not to be taken lightly. At the same time, they may want to reconsider the role and as the old deacon in Whitewright, Texas stated, “the duty” of calling out the called. Few would argue that the small-town church in Whitewright, Texas didn’t get it right!
Charles Jones is a newspaper columnist, Baptist historian, and retired pastor.